How Australia lost the plot on education

TOWARDS THE END of Educated, her harrowing memoir of an Idaho childhood with Mormon survivalist parents, Tara Westover concludes: ‘Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind.’ For Westover, ‘An education is not so much about making a living as making a person.’

Others have acknowledged the life-changing value of a great education. In his biography of the fifteenth-century polymath Leonardo da Vinci, Walter Isaacson describes da Vinci’s ongoing project of self-expansion through his relentless curiosity. Among the subjects of his inquisitiveness – jotted down in his many to-do lists – da Vinci planned to calculate the measurement of Milan and suburbs, read a book about Milanese churches, get a master of arithmetic to show him how to square a triangle, ask a Benedictine friar to show him a key text on mechanics, discover how people walk on ice in Flanders, understand how a crossbow worked, draw Milan, learn how to repair a canal lock, and describe the tongue of a woodpecker. Da Vinci relished knowledge for its own sake, drawing insights from arts and sciences alike. He defines the term ‘Renaissance man’. Like Westover, da Vinci constructed himself through education. The education he designed for himself continues to serve as an inspiration for teachers and learners alike.


CAREFUL STUDIES BY economists confirm the wide-ranging benefits of education. Higher levels of schooling significantly reduce the chances that an individual will go on to commit a crime. Quality early childhood programs for disadvantaged children help to improve self-control. For youths, education makes legal jobs more attractive.

Education also makes for a more engaged citizenry: more likely to participate in civic activities, join a political party and run for office. As scholars going back to Aristotle have noted, education makes people less susceptible to demagogues (little wonder that Donald Trump gushed after winning the Nevada caucus vote in 2016, ‘I love the poorly educated’).

Education even helps you breathe a little better. Those with more schooling are more likely to engage in physical activity, less likely to smoke and more likely enjoy good health. Better educated people also live longer. During the Covid pandemic, the death rate among Americans who did not finish high school was five times higher than the death rate among Americans with a university degree. In June 2021, the vaccination rate among Americans who did not complete high school was 69 per cent. Among those with a degree, it was 91 per cent.

And that’s before we get to the biggest benefit of education: its impact on earnings. Estimates vary, but one rule of thumb is that across high school and university, an additional year of education boosts lifetime earnings by at least 10 per cent. This means that completing a degree is worth around $600,000 to the typical Australian woman and $800,000 to the typical Australian man. Even for those just on the cusp of being admitted into university, attendance tends to boost earnings. In a world of increasing technological sophistication, there is far more risk of being left behind by innovation than being ‘over- educated’ for your job. One of the best predictors of disadvantage in Australia is a low level of education.

Across the nation, hundreds of thousands of talented educators are working to do their best. Yet as a whole, the education system is not living up to its potential. A report card on Australia’s education system during the twenty-first century would probably read ‘Grade = C. Must try harder’. This begins at the earliest stages, where the quality of early childhood education varies enormously, with a patchwork of subsidised private providers delivering long day care mixed with public providers offering preschool for a handful of hours a day.

At a school level, the harshest verdict is that delivered by the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests, which broadly evaluate the performance of Australia’s Year 9 students in reading, mathematics and science. No test is perfect, but the PISA tests are designed to go beyond rote learning and assess students’ critical thinking and problem-solving skills: talents that we know will be critical in a digital age. Since 2000, the OECD’s boffins have come to Australia every few years to test our teens. Each time, on each test, performance has declined. The drop now amounts to almost a full school year of attainment: the average Year 9 student educated today would only perform about as well as a Year 8 student educated in the year 2000.

If the economy shrinks for half a year, we call it a recession. A worse slump is described as a depression. It’s hard to find a nation in modern economic history with an economy smaller today than two decades ago – yet if school performance were an economic metric, Australia would be in the midst of a great depression.

Beyond secondary school, completion rates in vocational training rose steadily from the mid-1990s through the early 2010s. In 2013, a record 214,600 students completed an apprenticeship or traineeship. Since then, the numbers have collapsed. In 2020, just 84,000 Australians completed an apprenticeship or traineeship – less than half the number seven years earlier. Adjusted for population growth, the collapse is even greater. On a per-person basis, the share of people completing an apprenticeship or traineeship in 2020 was less than one third of what it had been in 2013. For every five people who begin a vocational qualification, just two complete it. Many TAFEs have closed and staff numbers have been cut. The causes are complex, but they include structural changes in the labour market and changes in employer incentives to take on trainees and apprentices. Writing for Inside Story in 2018, University of Queensland economist John Quiggin put it succinctly: ‘Vocational education in Australia is in a state of crisis.’

Things aren’t much better in the university sector. Attendance rates increased markedly in the period from 2012 to 2017, after Australia adopted a demand-driven system under the Gillard government. This meant that places were set based on what students wanted to study rather than being micromanaged by the Commonwealth Department of Education. In less than a decade, the share of nineteen-year-olds at university rose from three in ten to four in ten. Among the fastest growing disciplines were health, natural sciences and information technology. The new students were disproportionately from needy backgrounds, with the share of those from disadvantaged neighbourhoods increasing significantly. The demand-driven system allowed the Australian Catholic University, Swinburne University of Technology and the University of the Sunshine Coast to double their domestic bachelor degree enrolments between 2008 and 2017.

Ironically, the Coalition, which touted the benefits of free markets, was responsible for ending the demand-driven system: in 2017, the Turnbull government returned Australia to a regime in which Canberra set the number of places – a system once dubbed by economist Max Corden as ‘Moscow on the Molonglo’. Since then, the increase in tertiary attendance has stalled. Modelling by the Mitchell Institute estimated that in the period to 2031, 200,000 fewer students would attend university than if the demand-driven system had remained in place. Just as those who benefitted from the shift to a demand-driven system were disproportionately from disadvantaged backgrounds, so too the cessation of the demand-driven system has disproportionately denied opportunities to low-income students.


WHILE THE HEALTH effects of COVID-19 have been worst for the elderly, the social impacts have hit the young hardest. The ‘Cov-Ed pandemic’ emerged as school lockdowns widened existing divides between affluent and disadvantaged students. Well-educated parents were more likely to be able to monitor their children’s schoolwork and step in as surrogate teachers. Less educated parents were not as likely to have the skills and confidence to home- school their children. Some children found themselves receiving one-on-one tutoring; others were literally left to their own devices. When lessons are being delivered over Zoom and Teams, schools have far less ability to equalise differences in family background. Society’s best engine of social mobility began to splutter.

At the school, vocational and university levels, educators, parents and students made remarkable efforts to keep learning on track. But they were hampered by the lack of focused attention given to the problem. In mid-2020, the Grattan Institute proposed a six-month ‘tutoring blitz’ in which 100,000 tutors – drawn from the ranks of pre-service teachers and retired teachers – would provide intensive small-group tutoring to the nation’s one million most disadvantaged students to help them recover lost ground. The tutoring that ended up being delivered was more of a blip than a blitz, despite the fact that the long-term benefit of the Grattan Institute’s scheme was estimated to be three times bigger than the cost. Even now, a tutoring blitz would be a valuable investment in the nation’s future.

For public schools, the support provided for the ruptures of the pandemic was desultory. In the 2020 budget, the federal government announced a $25 million ‘emerging priorities program’ to respond to education priorities arising from COVID-19. As of July 2021, just one fifth of the money had been allocated (to expanding online mathematics courses and the Duke of Edinburgh program). Meanwhile, some of Australia’s most elite private schools are now known to have received support through the JobKeeper program, despite experiencing no revenue drop. Between them, The King’s School, Wesley College and Brisbane Grammar were paid $25 million by the JobKeeper program, bolstering their already well-endowed endowment funds.

Perhaps the harshest impact of COVID-19 on education was felt by the university sector, which had attracted increasing numbers of overseas students, using their fees to subsidise domestic education and research. Prior to the pandemic, international education had become Australia’s fourth-largest export earner, worth $38 billion in 2018–19. The result was a larger and more dynamic university sector than would otherwise have been possible.

When the Commonwealth Government closed Australia’s international border in 2020, it recognised the need to support many sectors that were adversely affected. Airlines and tourism operators received billions of dollars in support. Yet the Morrison government changed the rules of the JobKeeper scheme three times in order to prevent public universities accessing it. The result was that only private tertiary education providers – such as Bond University and New York University (which has a Sydney campus) – received JobKeeper support. As public universities were projected to lose around $4 billion in 2020 and 2021, the Morrison government provided just $1 billion in additional support. As Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek has pointed out, casinos got JobKeeper, but universities did not.

Amid the disruption caused by COVID-19, the Morrison government also persuaded Senate crossbenchers to pass the Job-ready Graduates Package through parliament in October 2020. This reduced Commonwealth funding to universities and increased the cost of many courses, particularly in the humanities. In the past, student contributions were linked to graduates’ expected earnings. Under Job-ready Graduates, the objective has switched to using the price signal of HECS-HELP contributions to steer school leavers towards the government’s favourite courses (for example, agriculture, mathematics) and away from those it does not like (law, economics).

There are two major flaws in this approach. First, because HECS-HELP contributions are deferred by income-contingent loans, students’ decision-making is much less price-sensitive than if they were paying upfront. The policy adds to student debt but does little to shape students’ decisions. Second, the Coalition government’s favoured courses tend to be those with good short-term employment prospects. They ignore evidence that overly specific skills can atrophy over time, while broad-based training in the humanities and social sciences tends to pay off better over the course of a career.

A few examples illustrate the breadth of the impacts. Charles Sturt University is cutting bachelor degrees in outdoor education, sustainable agriculture and information technology. Macquarie University is cutting up to thirty-one programs in science and engineering. The University of Newcastle is cutting eight undergraduate degrees, including in technology, renewable energy systems and computer science. Swinburne University of Technology is cutting design and languages programs. Central Queensland University is closing campuses. The University of the Sunshine Coast is cutting programs in STEM. The University of Queensland is cutting programs in agriculture and engineering. Murdoch University is cutting programs in physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology and engineering. Asian studies programs are being wiped out nationwide. Across the university sector, nearly 2,000 courses have been cancelled. Can it really be the case that Australia in the future would be better off with fewer people trained in renewable energy systems, sustainable agriculture and Asian languages?

Staff losses have been substantial. Deakin and La Trobe universities had each lost around 3,000 staff by late 2021. Monash University had lost 1,000 staff. The Australian National University (ANU) had been decimated, losing one in 10 of its staff. The ANU Research School of Earth Sciences, which has done groundbreaking work in plate tectonics, has lost five professors. ANU’s outstanding physics department – which has a strong record of high-quality research and commercialisation – has lost twenty professorial positions and 40 per cent of PhD students. Across the sector, the National Tertiary Education Union identifies 17,000 job losses. The Australian Bureau of Statistics figures are more troubling still, suggesting that the number of people working in the education sector has dropped by 30,000 since early 2020. Outside international travel, it’s difficult to think of a sector that’s suffered as much as higher education during the pandemic.

The value of the international education sector in mid-2021 was half what it had been two years earlier. But even when border restrictions lift, universities will continue to struggle. Australian Research Council funding has dropped by more than $100 million in real terms since 2014. Australia’s souring relationship with China is likely to stymie research collaboration, even on topics that raise no national security concerns. International student demand from China is likely to fall. Many prospective international students will recall Prime Minister Morrison’s cold command in April 2020, when he told those studying in Australia ‘Go home’.

With only one exception (David Littleproud), every member of Morrison’s Cabinet attended university. Yet this government’s hostility towards universities is worse even than it was under the Howard government (which provided no real increase in higher education spending from 1995 to 2005, a decade when other OECD nations increased real spending by 49 per cent). In July 2021, Morrison refused to take a crisis meeting with a group of university chancellors, including Martin Parkinson and Peter Shergold, both former heads of the Prime Minister’s department; Peter Varghese, the former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; and businesspeople David Gonski and Belinda Hutchinson. In August 2021, global higher education expert Alex Usher told the Australian Financial Review’s Higher Education Summit, ‘The Australia government is actively antagonistic towards universities. It’s noticeably more antagonistic towards universities than pretty much any other OECD country, I would argue, other than Hungary.’


WHAT IF AUSTRALIA was determined to recast itself as an ‘education nation’? What would we need to do in order to ensure that high schoolers outperformed their parents’ generation, rather than backsliding? What would it take to create a vocational sector with high rates of attainment and completion? What do we need to do to create a university sector ready to train the workforce of tomorrow and research the world’s most pressing problems? What would it take for Australia to do as well on global test score and university rankings as we did on the medal tally for the Tokyo Olympics?

Evidence from the economics of education points to some specific and achievable solutions. At an early childhood level, providing high-quality early childhood education to vulnerable toddlers is recognised as delivering huge payoffs in later life. The best Australian evidence in this area comes from the Early Years Education Program, a randomised trial conducted in Melbourne in which children from extremely disadvantaged backgrounds were provided with three years of quality education, delivered by highly experienced educators in a setting with high carer/child ratios. Two years after completing the program, participants’ results were compared with those of children in the randomly selected control group. Participating in the program boosted children’s IQ scores by up to seven points and made them more resilient. Expanding such programs in low-income communities across Australia could substantially improve the life chances of at-risk children.

For mainstream communities, it would also be worth addressing the inconsistent approach across different states and territories when it comes to the provision of preschool programs. Some jurisdictions provide government- funded preschool for three-year-olds; others do not. Where such programs are offered, they are typically for fifteen hours a week – far shorter than most of the part-time jobs, let alone the full-time ones, in which parents might be engaged.

The results are a bit of a hodgepodge. A two-year-old might receive forty hours a week of care in a non-government setting with large out-of- pocket costs, while a six-year-old might attend a government institution for thirty hours a week with their parents paying hardly any out-of-pocket costs. When children are four, parents might find themselves combining both privately provided day care with publicly provided preschool. As they juggle children between preschool and day care, many parents scratch their heads at the oddity of this hybrid system. Developing a more consistent framework isn’t child’s play. But it’s clear that the present system has morphed out of one that was developed in an era with much lower rates of women’s labour force participation. A great early childhood system should both develop young minds and allow their parents to stay engaged in the workforce. At times, Australia’s system fails to achieve both these goals.

It’s hard to imagine that we would arrive at such a strange combination of public and private providers if we were designing the early childhood system anew. It’s equally hard to imagine that in 2050, Australia’s early childhood services will be structured as they are today. A better system would provide more support for working parents as well as higher quality education for children. There would be smoother transitions from year to year in terms of both the prices parents pay and the education that children enjoy. This would deliver a productivity payoff in the short term (by allowing more mothers to combine work and family) and in the long term (by providing children with stronger foundations for learning).

What would an ideal schooling system look like? As a starting point, it would ensure that every school is a great school. At present, there are major differences between schools serving advantaged and disadvantaged students. To see this, let’s compare the schools attended by the quarter of Australia’s students who are most advantaged with the schools attended by the quarter of Australia’s students who are most disadvantaged. The schools whose students are most advantaged tend to have teachers with three years’ more teaching experience (eighteen years versus fifteen years) and teachers who are more likely to be trained in all the subjects they teach (85 per cent versus 78 per cent). In schools attended by more disadvantaged students, just over a fifth of principals report that their school’s capacity to provide instruction is hindered by teachers not being well prepared for classes, while in advantaged schools, only 6 per cent of principals make this complaint. Similarly, 21 per cent of principals in disadvantaged schools say that the school’s capacity to provide instruction is hindered by teacher absenteeism, while only 6 per cent of principals in advantaged schools have to worry about this interruption to their students’ learning.

These differences are partly due to disparities between government and non-government schools, but that’s not the whole story. Even within the government sector, teachers who work in advantaged neighbourhoods tend to be more qualified and experienced than teachers who work in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. One reason for this is uniform salary scales, in which teachers’ earnings largely depend on their years of experience. This differs from the way that other public service professionals are typically paid. Most public servants are assigned to competence bands, and advancing from one band to the next requires a merit-based promotion process.

Although disadvantaged government schools often receive higher levels of per-student funding, it is not possible in most instances for principals at those schools to pay their teachers more. Disadvantaged schools can use their additional money to hire additional support staff or purchase new equipment. But in general, such schools cannot offer higher salaries to attract or retain the most sought-after teachers. Knowing that they will earn the same salary whether they work at an advantaged school or a disadvantaged school, experienced teachers have tended to gravitate over their careers towards schools in affluent neighbourhoods. This is the opposite of what an equality of opportunity policy would dictate.

Many topics in education policy are contested, but one rare issue of agreement is around the importance of teacher quality. My own research – analysing data from more than 10,000 teachers and 90,000 students in Queensland – found that the most effective tenth of teachers produces twice the test score gains as the least effective tenth. In other words, the most effective teachers can convey in a single day what the least effective teachers can convey in two days. Yet there is significant evidence to suggest that the academic aptitude of new teachers has declined over time. In work published in 2008, Chris Ryan and I found that the academic aptitude of new teachers in 1983 placed them in the seventieth percentile of achievement. In 2003, new teachers were scoring in the sixty-second percentile. The Grattan Institute has found that this decline has continued in recent years. At the same time, demand from high achievers to become teachers fell by one third in the decade from 2010 – more than any other undergraduate field of study.

The Grattan Institute makes specific suggestions to address this situation: scholarships for teacher education students, higher pay for the best teachers and a marketing campaign to ‘sell’ teaching as a rewarding career. Others have proposed alternative suggestions, such as merit pay, an area that is surprisingly under-researched. But the key point to recognise is that raising teacher quality also helps address other challenges. With a first-rate teaching workforce, debates around the frequency of testing and the flexibility of the curriculum become less important. Talented educators will succeed in many different settings, adapting their approach to serve the needs of students.

Great teachers change lives. As Frank McCourt wrote in Teacher Man, his 2005 memoir about teaching high-school English in New York: ‘In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counsellor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother-father-brother-sister-uncle-aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.’

Making teacher quality the central focus of school policy is not only the best thing that we could do in education policy; it is perhaps the best thing we could do in economic and social policy too. Research by US economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman and Jonah Rockoff compares the lifetime earnings of students taught by more and less effective teachers. The study found that over a teaching career, highly effective teachers can boost their students’ earnings by millions of dollars more than ineffective teachers. In our 2019 book Innovation + Equality, Joshua Gans and I crunched the numbers and figured out that talented teachers are literally worth their weight in gold.

At a tertiary level, the Australian disconnect between vocational education and universities stands in stark contrast to the system in the United States, where vocational institutions are known as two-year colleges, academic institutions are known as four-year colleges and transitions between the two are common. My colleague Jim Chalmers, the Federal Member for Rankin, gives the example from his electorate of Griffith University’s Logan campus and TAFE Queensland’s Loganlea campus, which sit on opposite sides of the Logan Motorway. The two places are a literal stone’s throw apart, yet there is still not enough interaction between them. Greater collaboration, recognition of course credits and cross-enrolment opportunities would benefit both kinds of institutions. Whether it is a university marketing student wishing to learn web design at TAFE or a TAFE early childhood student keen to take a course in landscape architecture, a wide variety of students can benefit from better connections between vocational education and universities.

Universities themselves have the potential to be powerful engines of social mobility. Yet my research shows that institutions vary in the extent to which they enrol disadvantaged students. Among those with the largest share of low socio-economic status students are Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory, Federation University (with campuses across regional Victoria and in Brisbane), Murdoch University in Perth, the University of South Australia and Western Sydney University. Institutions with the small- est share of low socio-economic status students include Bond University, the University of New South Wales, the University of Notre Dame Australia and the University of Technology Sydney. Making higher education more accessible helps ensure that talent does not slip through the cracks. This means strengthening the connections between universities and disadvantaged schools, targeting scholarships to need as well as merit, and offering better support for students who are the first in their family to attend university. Finding these ‘lost Albert Einsteins’ and ‘lost Marie Curies’ means more breakthrough inventions and transformative research findings in the future. Recognising the wide-ranging needs in the higher education sector, Shadow Education Minister Tanya Plibersek recently called for a national and bipartisan ‘Australian Universities Accord’ along the lines of Australia’s long-term approach to national security and defence. This would be built around six principles: accessibility, affordability, quality, certainty, sustain- ability and prosperity. Delivering on such an accord would mean providing enough university places to meet the nation’s future skills need – without burdening students with excessive debts. It would require an assurance of stability for institutions, so they can build up research centres, and a commitment to provide students with the kind of outstanding education that enables them to land their dream jobs.


IN THE MID-1980S New Zealand intelligence researcher James Flynn showed that people across the world were becoming smarter. The improvement was so large, he argued, that if the typical person in the 1980s were to be transported back to the 1930s, he or she would be regarded as a brilliant intellect.

Unfortunately, Australia in the 2000s has suffered a reverse Flynn effect. Far from test scores rising, the academic aptitude of Australia’s teens has slipped backwards. There’s no single answer to turning around Australia’s educational performance, but the research provides some pointers. Extremely disadvantaged children benefit from intensive, high-quality early childhood programs. Attracting and retaining the best performers into teaching should be the number one objective of school policy. We should sort out the messy interface between day care and preschool. Tear down unnecessary barriers between TAFE and university. Stop the culture wars against universities. Encourage tertiary institutions to enrol more low-income students and help them to build up the research centres that will answer the questions of tomorrow.

A society that places education at its centre will be more productive – but knowledge isn’t only about productivity. As you may recall, among the tasks on Leonardo da Vinci’s to-do list was to describe the tongue of a woodpecker. This might sound frivolous, but it turns out to be fascinating. As Walter Isaacson notes in his biography of da Vinci, if you struck a tree with your head as hard as a woodpecker does, you would knock yourself unconscious. The reason the woodpecker is able to do its job is that it has a tongue three times the length of its bill that can retract into the bird’s skull to serve as a shock absorber for its brain.

Isaacson concludes: ‘There is no reason you actually need to know any of this. But I thought maybe that you would want to know. Just out of curiosity. Pure curiosity.’


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